And so it was, whenever the spirit from God was upon Saul, that David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Then Saul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him. 1 Samuel 16 v 23
Yesterday we looked at soul music as defined by Little Richard. Today we reflect on the life of a woman known as “Lady Soul” – Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on the 25th of March 1942 in Memphis Tennessee and died on the 16th of August, 2018. She was known in popular culture as the American singer who defined the golden age of soul music of the 1960s but like Little Richard, hers was a life that had a beginning, middle and end in church and in faith.
Aretha’s mother, Barbara, was a gospel singer and pianist. Her father, C.L. Franklin, presided over the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and was a minister of national influence. A singer himself, he was noted for his brilliant sermons, many of which were recorded. Her parents separated when she was six, and Franklin remained with her father in Detroit. Her mother died when Aretha was 10. As a young teen, Franklin performed with her father on his gospel programmes in major cities throughout the country and was recognized as a vocal prodigy. Aretha’s own central influence, Clara Ward of the renowned Ward Singers, was a family friend. Other gospel greats of the day—Albertina Walker and Jackie Verdell—helped shape young Franklin’s style. From a very young age she was outstanding and recognised as a gifted singer as heard in her album The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin (1956) which captures the electricity of her performances as a 14-year-old.
At age 18, with her father’s blessing, Aretha switched from sacred to secular music. She moved to New York City, where Columba Records executive John Hammond, who had signed Billie Holiday, arranged her recording contract and supervised sessions highlighting her in a blues/jazz vein. From that first session, “Today I Sing the Blues” (1960) remains a classic. But, as her Detroit friends on the Motown label enjoyed hit after hit, Franklin struggled to achieve crossover success. Columbia placed her with a variety of producers who marketed her to both adults (“If Ever You Should Leave Me,” 1963) and teens (“Soulville,” 1964). Without targeting any particular genre, she sang everything from Broadway ballads to youth-oriented rhythm and blues. Critics recognized her talent, but the public remained lukewarm until 1966, when she switched to Atlantic Records, where producer Jerry Wexler allowed her to sculpt her own musical identity.
It was here that Aretha was her most true self and returned to her gospel-blues roots, and the results were sensational. “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” (1967), recorded in Florence, Alabama, was her first million-seller. Surrounded by sympathetic musicians playing spontaneous arrangements and devising the background vocals herself, Aretha refined a style associated with Ray Charles—a rousing mixture of gospel and rhythm and blues—and raised it to new heights. As American became more of a civil rights -minded nation, black urban music drew greater interest and soon Aretha Franklin was crowned the “Queen of Soul.” “Respect,” her 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s energetic composition, became an anthem operating on personal, sexual, and racial levels. “Think” (1968), which Franklin wrote herself, also had more than one meaning. For the next half-dozen years, she became a hit maker of unprecedented proportions; she was “Lady Soul.”
In the early 1970s she triumphed in San Francisco before an audience of flower children and on whirlwind tours of Europe. And then came Amazing Grace (1972), a live recording of her performance with a choir at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, which became a documentary film released after her death and which you can hear a song from today. Within the recording and filming her father Rev C.L Franklin preaches and tells of the moment he first heard Aretha sing and knew that her voice was God given for a purpose of beauty and glory in her life. When you listen to Aretha sing, her soothing and powerful sound used faithfully and prayerfully lifts audiences to a spiritual place as you’ll hear today. “Amazing Grace” as a recording is considered one of the great gospel albums of any era.
Her Baptist minister father was the organiser behind the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom – the largest-ever demonstration for civil rights in the US until the March on Washington later that year, when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr made his “I have a dream” speech. Dr King was a frequent guest in her father’s home and Aretha actually sang at his funeral years later. Dr King’s daughter, Dr Bernice King, called Aretha a “shining example” of how to use the arts to support social change.
“As a daughter of the movement, she not only used her voice to entertain but to uplift and inspire generations through songs that have become anthems.”
As she rose in popularity, Franklin did not abandon her sense of activism. She told Elle her contract in the 1960s included the clause that she would never perform for a segregated audience.
Civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson – who was Franklin’s friend for over 60 years told the press that she helped pay for many civil rights tours and campaigns while Dr King was alive. She held free concerts, housed activists and helped them fundraise. Jackson called her “an inspiration, not just an entertainer”.
“She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency,” he said.
The Queen of Soul remained a prominent face – and voice – for African American civil rights throughout her life and in 2009 she electrified a crowd of more than one million people with her performance of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.
In 2015, President Barack Obama said: “American history wells up when Aretha sings.”
“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
Aretha used her God given talents to transform the world at many times throughout her life and her story is for us, one of faith and inspiration. We thank God for her life and music as it uplifts us today in these challenging times.
The Musician’s Prayer
Oh Lord, please bless this music that it might glorify your name. May the talent that you have bestowed upon me be used only to serve you.
Let this music be a witness to your majesty and love, and remind us that you are always watching, and listening, from your throne above.
May your presence and beauty be found in every note, and may the words that are sung reach the hearts of your people so they will draw closer to you.
May your Spirit guide us through every measure so that we might be the instruments of your peace, and proclaim your glory with glad voices.